“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.” I couldn’t agree more with Sidney Smith, an Anglican clergyman, who died in over a hundred and fifty years ago. And as far as I’m concerned it can’t be any old tea. And certainly not a tea-bag, a monstrous invention that I suspect is just tissue paper filled with tea-dust left in the bottom of the tea chest after my proper tea leaves have been packaged.
And for me the only tea worth drinking is Twining’s Lapsang Souchong. It comes from Fujian Province in China. According to the packet: “the delicious smoky flavour is produced by lying the leaves on bamboo trays, and allowing the smoke from pinewood to permeate through them”. Ah, so … other tea now tastes quite crude to me after years of drinking nothing but this brew.
Though the Twining family may be surprised to hear this, I always feel quite connected to them, as I had a great friend who was a Twining, and my former in-laws had lived in a rose- coloured, brick Georgian house built by Elizabeth Twining down by the River Thames. I spent a lot of time there in that beautiful house, very conscious of Elizabeth. The firm of Twinings has been selling tea for three hundred years from premises in The Strand in London, so when the latest head of the Twining family came out to NZ to talk tea, naturally I heeded his instructions on how to make it.
Always happy to take the least trouble, I was delighted to hear from him (on the radio) that we don’t need to heat the tea-pot – swishing boiling water around the pot before putting the tea-leaves in. Previously it had been an essential part of the ritual of making a pot of tea. But my tea leaves now go into a cold tea-pot. I missed the rest of his talk so I don’t know whether he addressed the thorny problem of milk. To have or not to have – that is the question. Purists don’t. I’m not a purist. I’m a conservative who has had milk in my tea for more than seventy years.
There‘s a further twist to the milk problem – known as MIF. Legend has it (which is not always reliable) that the Royal family refer to people as MIF’s. But I don’t believe this snobbish canard. MIF means exactly that – milk in first. And this is what the late Nancy Mitford used to funningly call non-U. (U meant upper class, and non-U the opposite!) Milk in first means you’re probably the sort of person who’d lift the port decanter and push it across the table instead of sliding it along clockwise around the table – horrors – or would say: ‘pleased to meet you,’ instead of:’ how do you do!’ – shudders! Incredibly, when I grew up these snobbish rituals defined the man – or woman.
So for most of my life, I had put the tea in first. But the worm turned about fifteen years ago, when I discovered that the tea tastes much nicer when you do MIF ! This puts me firmly on the wrong side of the tracks – but the bonus is delicious tea.
If I’m offered a cup of tea that I know will not meet my impossible standards of taste and strength – other people’s tea is always too strong for me – I add sugar, and then it becomes something else. Tea out of a mug is not the same as tea out of a bone china flowered cup and saucer. I dread the day when I’m plonked in an old people’s home, and will have no lapsang souchong and no bone china tea-cup.
Life without tea is unthinkable. There was no bombing so bad in the Blitz, that you weren’t offered a cup of tea after it; no shortage of water in the Western desert so tight, that there wasn’t always enough for a pot of tea brewed by the tanks; no misery so deep that a cup of tea doesn’t at least give the sufferer a second’s respite; no cold so deep that a cup of hot tea doesn’t warm the innards; no thirst so terrible in the tropics, that a cup of tea doesn’t quench it, and no morning in the office so boring that a cup of tea doesn’t briefly break the monotony .
I often jokingly use the poet Cowper’s delicious phrase: ‘the cup that cheers but doth not inebriate!’ My grandmother always had a trolley laid for such a cup – on a lace tea-cloth with two tea-cups and saucers, sugar pot and tea-spoons, and the milk jug covered with a crocheted lace doily weighted with coloured beads. (Milk that wasn’t mucked about with didn’t go sour like it does today!)
In her book ‘Urban Shaman’, American writer CE Murphy writes a delicious description of having a cup of tea: “In Ireland, you go to someone’s house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting. Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.
“In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don’t get any damned tea. I liked the Irish way better.”
She must have forgotten that the American way with tea is simply to toss it into Boston Harbour!
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
This is the perfect cake to have with a cup of tea – if you’re not planning on cucumber sandwiches! It’s the classic French cake with equal quantities of everything. So it’s four eggs, and the same weight of butter, sugar and flour. You can halve the amounts for a smaller cake. Soften the butter, and beat it with the sugar – until it’s almost white and fluffy. Add the eggs whole, one at a time and beat. If it starts to look grainy, add a spoonful of sieved flour. When all the eggs are in, fold in the flour a spoonful at a time, using a metal spoon.
Add enough milk to make a soft smooth mixture which drops off the spoon. Stir in the grated rind of half a lemon. Gently push into a buttered cake tin, the base lined with greaseproof paper, and bake in a moderate oven around 180 degrees. Bake for fifty minutes … if it’s still soft and hissing, cook for another ten minutes.
Leave the cake in the tin for a few minutes, and then tip onto a rack to cool. I make a butter icing for this, soft butter, icing sugar and lemon juice and the other half of the grated lemon rind, all beaten together.
Food for Thought
Development cannot fly in the face of happiness; development should promote human happiness, love and human relati0ns between parents and children and friends. Life is the most important treasure we have and when we fight, we must fight for human happiness.” Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay at the Rio Conference